Mohave County isn’t happy about the sale of Planet Ranch. Why? Read on.
It’s been used by the U.S. Defense Department to simulate low-yield nuclear weapons. It’s been purchased by the City of Scottsdale for its rich water rights from the Bill Williams River. Some of its 171,000 acres have been used for farming alfalfa. It’s been eyed by various business interests for various reasons. It lies within remote La Paz and Mohave Counties.
As is the case with many other patches of non-government land across western Arizona, Planet, AZ was mining land. The Planet copper mine, the mainstay of Planet and the second copper mine in Arizona to be worked by Americans, was discovered in 1863. Slowly a town grew around the mine and finally got a post office in 1902. When the mines played out in 1921, Planet succumbed to financial ruin as miners went elsewhere for work.
When Scottsdale bought the property back in the Eighties, they envisioned it as a water source to allow them continued sustainable growth as a city, having acquired the water rights which they could then funnel through the existing Central Arizona Project canal. But the plan never got off the ground.
Now, a mining company called Freeport McMoRan has struck a deal with Scottsdale to purchase the land for its water. The deal is worth a reported $24 million and is described as a “win-win situation for everybody” by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Not only would it get Planet Ranch off Scottsdale’s back, something the city has wanted for years – and give the company the extra water it wants for its mines in places like Bagdad, AZ – it may also effectively extend the nearby Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge, since Freeport would be using the property for its water, not for land development.
But Buster Johnson, District III Mohave County Supervisor, has some objections. In a recent guest column for the Arizona Independent newspaper, Johnson says:
“If this land is used merely for its water rights, future generations of Mohave County residents are going to lose out on the great potential this land could offer. We could build a county park or even a resort on the land. It would be a great economic benefit for the county not to mention a place future generations could go to enjoy.”
Some are sure to see this as somewhat presumptuous, considering that a significant portion of Planet Ranch falls on the La Paz side of the County line, and neither County owns the land. Since the Freeport deal is worth $24 million and both counties are operating a lean budget in hard economic times, it’s difficult to see how Johnson’s dreams of Mohave County Parks and Resorts could be a reality, or how putting this rare parcel of private land into public hands would be a step forward.
But Johnson may not want to make a fair play for the land. As a government official, he speaks the language of government: forceful coercion. In the same Independent editorial, Johnson admits he’s trying to block the deal:
“The state of Arizona along with the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) should be looking at all ways possible to make sure Arizona along with Mohave County contains and keeps all the water rights we currently have. This is why the Board of Supervisors voted at our last meeting to put together a letter of opposition to the ADWR and intervene in regards to this issue.”
What makes this mystifying is the reference to “all the water rights we currently have” in relation to Planet Ranch, the water rights of which are not currently owned by Mohave County at all, but rather the City of Scottsdale which paid $11 million for them 26 years ago. Johnson is attempting to block a transfer of water rights between the rightful owners of private property without any legitimate claim to the rights himself, and without a thought that Planet Ranch is a La Paz County property too.
What is in the future for Planet Ranch? Well, this deal will likely be finalized, and Freeport will use part of an existing water pipeline to bring their water from Planet to their existing mine operations in Arizona. As for the land itself, perhaps Freeport can work out a deal with some lessees who want to do something non-disruptive there, or even the Department of the Interior next door.
Alternatively, the site will remain a remote desert region, a safe spot for wildlife along the Bill Williams River. That doesn’t sound so bad either.